Monday, January 2, 2012
LOTR movies Retrospective: Fellowship
I'm a huge Tolkien fan, corresponded briefly with the guy when I was a teenager (I was trying to acquire the movie rights to The Hobbit!), and I think I've read Lord of the Rings at least forty times...I love the Silmarillion too, and have championed it vigorously against those who don't appreciate it sufficiently. So...I was about the worst possible audience for a movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and I was kind of amazed---in a good way---by Peter Jackson's achievement. Was very impressed by the movies when they first came out, and my appreciation only deepened when I watched the appendix material on the DVD's...given all the crap that Jackson had to contend with at New Line, and the fact that he was shooting all three movies simultaneously, I thought he and his team managed something that was very nearly miraculous.
I was looking forward to his remake of King Kong, although, as I heard more and more about it, I got increasingly worried. In the original movie, Carl Denham (who's kind of an amalgam of Merrian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) is an absolute son of a bitch, but he's pretty damn cool, too. In the remake, Jackson decided to play him as a evil idiot, and the result was a big sopping loogie in Cooper and Schoedsack's faces...I think they would've hated Jackson's movie. I sure did. But it wasn't just the treatment of Denham. Everything about the film was coked-up, wildly overdone, stupid, stupid, stupid, verging on Stephen Sommersish. Even the monsters were frequently ill-designed.
Anyway, I got really mad at Peter Jackson, and the Kong remake sorta began to poison my memories of the LOTR movies. The Lovely Bones didn't help either...I thought everything with Stanley Tucci worked very well indeed, but when we got to special effects non-heaven, I thought the film completely spazzed out, becoming something like an even more bombastic and arbitrary version of What Dreams May Come. The end was preposterously anticlimactic too. Don't know how much of that was Jackson's fault...I've never read the book...but the final product was extremely messed up.
Okay then. This summer, since the last Harry Potter movie was coming out, me and the family decided to do a Potter movie crawl, watch every installment and then go see Deathly Hallows Part Two. Well, we had quite a good time. I don't think the series quite hit its stride until the second movie, but it was apparent right from the gitgo that the casting was excellent; one of the coolest things about the films was the way they employed virtually every nifty character actor in Britain. Also, the adaptations were about as good as could be expected, probably due to the influence that J.K. Rowling was able to exert over the films; in fact, the movies were frequently better than the books, in my opinion. I would even go so far as to say that they were better adaptations of Rowling than Jackson's LOTR was of Tolkien...they simply treated the source material more respectfully. For the most part, when Jackson tampered, he did so at his peril.
Since we had such fun with our Potter crawl, we decided to do a LOTR movie retrospective over Christmas...just watched the extended edition of Fellowship, and I'm happy to report that the experience wasn't colored too much by Kong at all. Fellowship still stands up extremely well. I had some reservations then, and still have them now...but nothing too serious.
First off, the adaptation is efficient and gets the big stuff right. The initial setup, with Sauron and Isildur, works real well, and makes all the relevant points pretty spectacularly. You watch it, you relax, feel confident you're not going to see your favorite book mangled. You see the little snippet of the Bilbo and Gollum biz, and you say, yeah, Ian Holm is exactly right...he will, as a matter of fact, prove to be one of the most dead-on bits of casting in the film.
The Shire stuff in the theatrical version was good, but the extended version is a big improvement. We get a much better idea of what Bilbo's sloppy bachelor pad is like...Bag End is superbly realized. The additional material from "Concerning Hobbits" is very welcome. Elijah Wood's Frodo is one of the weaker aspects of the film, but when Ian McKellan's Gandalf shows up, you say, yep, that's Gandalf all right. Bilbo's Birthday party is genuinely funny...it's nice to have the bit with the horrid Sackville Bagginses...the introduction of Merry and Pippin is a bit dodgy, but Bilbo's speech and disappearance work perfectly. McKellan really really really becomes Gandalf in the scene where he partially reveals his true nature and scares Bilbo into handing over the ring.
Sean Astin's Sam is yet another of the film's casting triumphs; totally nails the character. Once Bilbo leaves the ring and departs, we get a whole lot of compression---in the book, the stuff after the party, when Gandalf is out investigating, covers about ten years---but films don't work like novels, really, and the squeeze is a good idea cinematically. It's nifty to get a glimpse of Minas Tirith...when Gandalf returns and lays the whole Sauron angle out to Frodo, the exposition is well handled, and there's a palpable sense of gathering dread. Having the stuff between Gandalf and Saruman onstage, and inserting it so early in the story is rather a departure, but it moves things right along, and Chris Lee's Saruman is yet another dead-on characterization. Very good to see the old guy in such a juicy role...his best part since Lord Summerisle, maybe better.
But things go downhill somewhat after Frodo and Sam head out onto the road. In the extended version, the scene with the departing elves is a definite improvement, but Jackson can't really do a good job on the Shire, in my opinion; I don't think there's really any genuinely Shire-looking stuff in New Zealand. The trees are mostly southern hemisphere evergreens, and even though Bilbo, earlier, was going on about wanting to see mountains, the Shire is apparently ringed by some pretty big ones. We don't get Farmer Maggot or Tom Bombadil (he might've been real problematic), and the reintroduction of Merry and Pippin is extremely clumsy. The scene where the hobbits hide from the first Black Rider that shows up is fairly effective, although the bugs are over-the-top. Things head further downslope as our heroes evade the Black Riders in some improbably lit piney-wood night scenes...the black riders are extremely inept.
Bree is no good either. In the book, Bree is a fun place where Hobbits and people co-exist and have a real good time at an inn called the Prancing Pony. In Jackson's version, the Prancing Pony is dark and nasty and populated by filthy-looking medieval scumbags with grease all over their faces, like evil Mexicans in an Italian Western. I have to say I don't like Viggo Mortensson's Strider either, although I generally like Viggo in other stuff...he just seems too young and small. Actually, I think Sean Bean would've been better, but more about him later.
The attack by the Nazgul in the Hobbit's chamber works reasonably well, although the wierdly stylized scene with Butterbur cringing as they slide by, apparently on casters, is pretty silly. Things improve, though, as we get out into the wild, especially in the longer version...we get the Neekerbreekers, and the addition of the Beren and Luthien material is a good thing; pretty much all the comedy with Merry and Pippin is genuinely funny. But once again, the Nazgul aren't scary enough...they're ridiculously incompetent on Weathertop, and when one of them gets a flaming brand stuck into his hood, I was reminded of those horned snooded fellows in the Justified and Ancient video.
In the extended version, we get to see the petrified trolls from The Hobbit, and I appreciate that...as little as I like Elijah Wood, I think he does pretty well as a desperately ill halfling who's been Morgul-bladed. As for Liv Tyler, I think she's got rather a thankless role and looks way too much like her father; sticking her in for Glorfindel is just plain silly (what would she be doing out there in the waste by herself, anyway?)and in general, the attempt to punch up her part in the proceedings---for completely doctrinaire PC reasons---is simply foolish.
I liked the chase with the Nazgul, though, even though it's hard to imagine they couldn't catch her, seeing as how they get so close...the flash-flood is dramatic and cool...enjoyed the special effects. The sojourn in Rivendell is a mixed bag, but in some respects it's an improvement on Tolkien, who really doesn't give you the slightest idea what the place is like. Jacksons's Rivendell might seem like a frou-frou cross between the Village in The Prisoner and a wierd Jersey Shore resort town called Ocean Grove, but at least it's concretely visualized, and the landscapes with all the waterfalls are impressive. Hugo Weaving is well-cast as Elrond, even if his hairdo is funny...the screenplay requires him to come out with some bum usage ("he has shown extraordinary resilience to its strength") but he skates right over it like a pro. It's excellent to see Bilbo again, and the romance stuff with Aragorn and Arwen, now that it's in its proper context, is satisfactory.
Still, a lot of the trappings in Rivendell are goofy; the statues are badly done, although not as godawful as Alan Lee's mural of Sauron vs. Isildur---come on! The guy's figurework is totally for shit. And the initial encounter between Sean Bean's Boromir and Aragorn is a bad idea...for one thing, the screenplay has Boromir dropping the shards of Narsil on the floor and leaving them there...no way.
The Council of Elrond is both efficient---and perfunctory. The bit with Gandalf uttering Black Speech is one of the few things in the extended edition that I would've left out. But Boromir gets his first good scene, and the introduction of Orlando Bloom's Legolas (he's the film's best elf) and John Rhys Davis's Gimli (he's well cast, but the role as written sucks) serves to set up the overall friction between elves and dwarves, and the Legolas/Gimli rivalry-then-friendship.
Finally, when the Fellowship hits the road, we get a bunch of fairly uninterrupted good scenes. The New Zealand locations are just right for the Misty Mountains, and the attempt to cross the pass of Caradhras is frightening, even though a lot of it is at variance with the book...I'd rather have had the stuff about the mountain himself preventing the crossing, rather than Saruman, although the shot of Saruman dispatching the storm is simply great. I've actually seen that weather effect (over Pike's Peak,) and let me tell you, it's something.
The approach to Moria is good...love the broken aqueduct. Don't know why they changed certain details...in the book, Gandalf wants to take the road into Moria. Having Gimli think the place is going to be a functioning dwarf-kingdom is simply absurd...but a lot of things just start conspiring to force your suspension of disbelief. The whole Moria sequence is a triumph of special effects, production design, and atmospherics.The Gates of Moria and the luminous carvings are just great, and the Watcher in the Water is one of the best movie monsters ever. The CG water is superb too. Once we get into Khazad-dum, the visuals, which are a combination of minatures, sets, and CG, are just stupendous...great rocks and cavernous chambers. The Great Hall of Dwarrowdelf is awesome, and right out of the book. Balin's Tomb is effectively forlorn and gruesome, and the fear mounts nicely as Gandalf reads from the book of Mazarbul. The bit with Pippin and the well is transferred to this sequence and tweaked, but it sure is funny---and scary. The orcs mount their attack way too quickly, but we don't care. The fight in the tomb is way longer and more spectacular than the one in the book, but what the hell. I would've preferred less shaky cam, but it sure combines with excellent CG to produce a very convincing troll. The Goblins are really creepy, and I appreciated the extra violence in the extended version.
When our guys flee from the chamber, I didn't like it when the orcs came flooding out of the ceiling...orcs can't do that, and Jackson should've controlled himself. For one thing, none of the orcs later seem to have this ability...remember all the siege ladders at Helm's Deep? Still, the coming of the Balrog is quite frightening...I particularly appreciated the lighting effect, where's he's apparently one row of columns over. I also loved the fact that everybody seemed genuinely freaked out, that Gandalf seems like he's about to have a heart attack...Orlando's Bloom's there's-a-Balrog-coming-look is everything such an expression should be. The sequence where the Fellowship descends those piers and stairs is pretty unnerving, even though it's not in the book...we get some of Howard Shore's best LOTR music. I really don't have the slightest idea why everything's on fire (it wasn't clear in the book, either) or why there's an ongoing earthquake...the physics in the sequence, with their oscillating stone constructions, are rather hard to take. Even so, the use of dizzying heights and yawning chasms is undeniably vertigo-producing, and I went with it.
We finally see the Balrog...he's an excellent design and a very good special effect, most terrible and intimidating. Gandalf's stand on the Bridge of Khazad Dum is powerfully depicted...the film really rises to the occasion, and that's absolutely vital, because that sequence is maybe the strongest in the whole damn trilogy. And when Gandalf falls, we're truly put out; the reaction of the various characters intensely moving; I can't think of another scene in the whole of fantastic cinema that's remotely as involving.
Of course, you just know that the subsequent stuff isn't going to be as compelling, and even in the book, the Lothlorien sojourn was primarily a breather. Jackson's crew do a pretty good job with Tolkien's locale, although I don't know why, exactly, they made everything silvery rather than golden. The guy they've got playing Haldir is almost hilariously epicene, but his scene served to show how paranoid the elves were about letting anyone into Lorien, and re-established the whole dwarf-elf enmity. Also, dropping Morgoth's name was a good idea...injecting a bit more mythos almost always is.
Martin Csokas and Cate Blanchett are well-cast as Celeborn and Galadriel, Cate especially. But even though their dialogue is right out of Tolkien, Jackson makes them members of the Slow Talker's Club, and the effect is pretty stilted and silly...these elves seem simply weird, wierd, wierd in a way that, let's say, Legolas and Elrond do not. Moreover, the special effects when Galadriel reveals the scarier side of her nature really don't make it...she just looks like she's got big hairy eyebrows. It would've been much better if she'd been allowed to let her acting to speak entirely for itself. I have no doubt that Cate would've managed it.
However, the scene where our guys depart from Lorien is nicely handled...in the theatrical version, I really missed the giving of the gifts...it's nice to see a scene in which Gimli isn't played for laughs. Actually, I think Jackson's handling of Gimli is one of the very worst things about the films; he gets the character completely wrong, and I really took offense; I always felt like Gimli was one of my friends. Turning him into Mr. Lout Blowhard Pratfall was profoundly stupid. The proper archetype is that of the Chivalrous Dwarf, a stock character from medieval romances...yeah, he's short and ugly, but well, he's noble, etc.
The scenery in the trip down the Anduin is spectacular, although the river isn't wide enough; the addition of the bit where they spot Gollum on the log is good; the additional fleshing-out with Borormir is also welcome. In fact, just about everything with Boromir is an improvement on Tolkien's version.The Argonath sequence is fabulous, really awe-inspiring. Having the little interlude with Saruman and his brand-new Uruk-Hai badass isn't in Tolkien, but I approved...after all, we learn that the orcs are derived from elves (which is of course from Tolkien, although he changed his mind later and decided they were made from humans), and just about Chris Lee scene in the films is great.
The part where Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo really clicks, although I have a problem with Aragorn turning the ring down...isn't in the book and shouldn't have been. For one thing, it kinda infringes on Faramir later on. One of the things I really hated about the adaptation of Two Towers was the way it abused Faramir. Jackson and his screenwriters got this idea into their heads that someone besides Boromir had to try to take the ring, because, well, the ring makes you try to take it. But...Bilbo gives it up, and Gandalf passes on it, and so does Galadriel, and so does Aragorn, and so does Sam later, and...oh hell, you get the idea. Sometimes you just gotta roll with the absurdities in your own plots, try not to call attention to them, and...
Not abuse Faramir.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
The final slaughterfest with the Uruks is pretty damn nifty; I liked it much better than the fight in Balin's tomb; seemed to me there was less shaky cam and more emphasis on well-staged stunts. Don't know why Aragorn would've saluted the orcs when they show up, but...we move pretty rapidly into some excellent hacking and hewing. Having Boromir's arrow-riddled last stand on screen is yet another way in which the film surpasses the book. The extended flick has better violence, but even in the theatrical version, the violence was pretty choice...I particularly like the bulge in the orc chieftain's thigh where Aragorn's dagger is shoved through it, and the climactic orc-decapitation. Boromir's final speech and death improve on the book too.
The wrap-up, with Frodo and Sam heading off by themselves, works just fine, although I could do without Aragorn saying, "Let's hunt some orc." Liked the final shot of the Emyn Muil...the movie definitely leaves you wanting more. I would say I enjoyed this viewing at least as much as my first viewing...when I went to the midnight show, I really couldn't let down my guard, because you never know when a movie's going to tank. Luckily, I'm way past that, and the only fantasy movie I like better than Fellowship is Return of the King... I suppose I might've sounded pretty crabby about some things just now, but I can be much crabbier when the situation calls for it, as it does with most other movies, let me tell you...